Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Whale found with hundred year old harpoon

Traditional whale hunters in the Alaskan north found a century-old harpoon fragment in a bowhead whale, suggesting that the whale may have been 130 years old.

The whale was killed as part of a traditional Eskimo hunt, carried out under strict regulations. The weapon fragment came from an exploding cannister that hit the whale, but failed to kill it. After the whale was killed with a similar modern device last month, the piece was found when the whale was butchered.
The weapon fragment was unusual enough to date the time the whale was first shot, sometime between 1885 and 1895. The whale survived more than 100 years with the weapon fragment near it's shoulder blade.

Scientists have had trouble aging whales, so this finding is an important advance. Too bad the "Rutherford B. Hayes" whale had to be shot again to reveal this unpleasant reminder of an old whale hunt that it carried for more than 100 years.

Bowhead whales are endangered, with the Alaskan population doing better than anywhere else in the world. Subsistence hunting of a few whales each year is not expected to harm the populations.

6 comments:

Rick MacPherson said...

i'm not quite as sanguine on this news nor so quick to join your assessment of the negligible impact of subsistence whaling, mark...

i don't know enough about the alaskan Inupiat people and their whaling heritage, but i'm not inclined to discount commercial whaling's involvement in encouraging their hunts and building a stronger case for japan to escalate their commercial whaling under the guise of "traditional whaling"...

being in washington, i'm sure you are familiar with the makah whaling traditions... their subsistence whaling stopped long ago... for 70 years, no whaling, then all of a sudden in the '90's the makah wanted to whale again...

turns out that members of the world council of whalers (a joint operation of japan and norway) set up shop in british columbia and began providing "start-up" cash and assistance in negotiating federal paperwork in order to re-start subsistence whaling...

in 1991 with us coast guard escort, 8 makah hunters set out in canoe with an assault rifle (is that a traditional weapon?) and shot (4 times) a juvenile gray whale... the whale was dragged on land (still alive) and carved-up with chainsaws (is that traditional?)... half the carcass was left to rot...

the whole extravaganza was seen as a "symbolic victory" for japan, which had engineered a return to whaling sanctioned by american law and occurring in american waters...

Mark Powell said...

The story is complex. Makah whaling was a cultural benefit to the tribe, according to my sources (I've asked for a guest blog on this). I know nothing about the Alaskan whaling.

Principle is important, but I would hope that we can distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable activities. Use of entirely traditional practices should not be the only criteria of what's reasonable, IMO.

Some whales could withstand a hunt, based purely on scientific analysis of population size, etc. Will we ban all whale hunting forever, regardless of sustainability? I don't have the answers. This bowhead whale kill was probably ok from a sustainability perspective.

Rick MacPherson said...

i'll look forward to the guest post... i wasn't present during the makah hunt i mentioned, so have to rely upon other sources for accounts...

but as matthew scully describes in his book "dominion," what transpired apparently bore little to revered tradition... several makah elders were even appalled at the behavior of the hunters after the whale was dragged on land... while still twitching, the crew climbed atop the whale jumping up and down...

this is not the respect makah elders remembered, and the hunters had to be instructed to climb off the carcass... having lost or forgotten tradition, the event was merely a display of ignorance and brutality apparently manipulated by japanese whaling interests...

and the brutality is a big part of my issue with whaling... it's not the sustainable harvest of a species for food that i find unacceptable (though i think that argument is a canard), it's the method of dispatching them and the potential suffering these magnificent mammals endure that's hard to stomach... the hunt should not just be sustainable, it should be humane...

i think it's fair to wager that a cetacean is at least as neurally complex (intelligent) as a dog... looking at some of the studies done on small cetaceans, i'd hazard they're a good deal more intelligent than fido... they demonstrate curiosity, can learn, communicate, and form social bonds...

no decent human would want to see their pet dog suffer... the thought is almost painful... why should we be so inured to the suffering of another (more intelligent?) animal? is it because the suffering is silent and out of sight?

i know i run the risk of getting tagged as some sort of extremist bunny-hugger with this long comment, but i feel HOW we choose to hunt is as important to consider in sustainability as WHAT we choose to hunt... explosive harpoons that often don't kill immediately is humane and the best we can do? and tradition should trump our humanity and compassion?

sorry, my cultural relativism has limits...

Mark Powell said...

Fishing is harsh. Whaling is harsh. Raising livestock is often harsh. Can we as a species come to terms with how we treat animals?

As an ocean conservationist, I am focused mostly on making sure our oceans have healthy populations of animals and healthy ecosystems. Whale hunting is a very tough test of focus, standards, values, etc.

The little bit that I know of native issues has me sympathetic with the Makah and others who want to hunt and fish. I'll take that one step down the slippery slope, and hope to resist gravity pulling me further.

A real test is whether to allow industrial hunting of minke whales. Their populations could withstand a hunt in biological terms. I would have a hard time supporting that personally, but from a sustainability perspective it's probably OK.

Tough issues, thanks for your thoughts, Rick.

matthew said...

great back and forth guys

gamefan12 said...

This has to be one of the craziest stories that i ever heard. This is amazing how did this happen. I would love to hear more of it.
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